Yet of them all, the Mk5 was the car I remembered least about and whose role in these proceedings was the least clear. I’d driven to the photo location in the Mk7 and fully expected the Mk5 to feel like a substantially more rubbish version thereof.
Well, I got that wrong. The Mk5 is superb. Of course, with its 2.0-litre turbo engine and near- 200bhp output, performance is unrecognisable compared with its elder relatives, but the figures place it approximately halfway between them and the Mk7 and that’s not how it feels at all. The Mk7 is quicker, but not much. The Mk5 feels properly rapid, super-strong in the mid-range and almost devoid of turbo lag. More interesting still, if you try to hoof it around in the corners, it really responds. Inevitably, grip levels are several streets ahead of either older car, but so is its willingness to adjust its line according to the whim of your right foot. Yes, all that extra weight means the feel coming back through the wheel and chassis is slightly muted, but you can steer this car on the throttle in a way that the Mk1 cannot be driven and the Mk2 chooses not to be driven. It is, in short, more fun than either, and before I drove them, I’d have bet a billion on that not being the case.
And the Mk7? It is probably the most coherent re-imagining of the original GTI philosophy there has been in these past four decades. It plays the everyday card even better today than did the Mk2 30 years ago: it is such a sophisticated, high-quality item, comprising a superb driving environment with class-leading ride and refinement yet, when the time comes, it proves to be both faster and even more fun to drive than the unexpectedly brilliant Mk5. The operative word for this car is ‘complete’, which, unlike ‘mature’, should in no way be equated with ‘boring’. Honestly, of everything I can think a car such as this should be expected to do, the Mk7 does it to a world-class standard.
So which is best? So often in these ‘old meets new’ stories, it is the modern cars that come off second best, because whatever their advantages on paper, they rarely if ever have the character of their lighter, simpler, more focused fathers.
For once, this is not one of those stories. We know the Golf GTI story over the past 40 years is one of magic captured, lost and rediscovered. But it was only by bringing together the cars responsible for the first and third acts that a clear picture of how they fare relative to each other emerges. The old cars are very cool, but Mk1s are expensive now and sufficiently limited in scope these days to be purely recreational vehicles. I might hanker after a Mk2 for sentimental reasons, but shorn of the need to perform every day and therefore of the thing it does best, it seems a little marooned. Maybe a more powerful 16-valver would be better, but I never liked them more in the day and doubt I would now.